By Bryan Bender
WASHINGTON _ In the most vocal plea yet for the White House to take the lead in pushing for gays and lesbians to be allowed to serve openly in the military, 77 Democratic lawmakers today urged President Obama to use his executive powers to order a halt to military discharges under the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law and work aggressively with Congress to pass new legislation to overturn what they describe as a discriminatory policy that harms national security.
"We urge you to exercise the maximum discretion legally possible in administering Donít Ask, Donít Tell until Congress repeals the law," states the letter, organized by Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat of Florida. "To this end, we ask that you direct the Armed Services not to initiate any investigation of service personnel to determine their sexual orientation, and that you instruct them to disregard third party accusations that do not allege violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
A recent study by the Palm Center, a public policy think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argued that Obama has the authority as commander-in-chief to suspend the gay discharge process through an executive order.
But only Congress can make a permanent change, by overturning the 1993 law that established the current policy -- which stipulates that gays and lesbians can serve in uniform only if their sexual orientation remains secret.
And so far, virtually no Republicans in the House of Representatives or Senate have expressed a willingness to overturn the law, while many conservative Democrats are also considered wary of doing so.
Obama aides have said the president still plans on acting on his campaign pledge to work for the law's repeal but have outlined a very deliberative process of study and consultation with the top military brass that could take months, if not years.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, asked about the policy last week, made it clear that he believes it is ultimately up to the Congress to reverse it and that the administration has few options unless it repeals the law.
"Until the law is changed, our ability to change the policy is extremely limited, if not nonexistent," Gates said.
Still, those who back repeal say the nation cannot afford to wait until 2010 or 2011, contending that thousands of qualified personnel needed in a time of war have been kicked out of the military unnecessarily, including those will skills such as foreign language proficiency that are in short supply.
"...Our country's national security will continue to suffer if action is delayed," the lawmakers, including four members of the Massachusetts delegation, told Obama today.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.